Maverick Canadian Chefs 2006

By / Mavericks / January 28th, 2009 / 2

One evening this summer I was trying to cook Thai food in Cairo and I wondered how a city of sixteen million could go without lemongrass. I thought of other food I missed back home. I realized it was more than the beautiful fish, the fresh produce and the organic meat I was after, it was also the inspiring chefs and their restaurants. I missed the total experience and charm of entering a space where every inch is part of a signature, a feeling and finesse that runs throughout a place. So upon my return, I set out to find just this: chefs who have not only innovated with their food but also designed the restaurants they cook in to suit their personalities.

The three maverick chefs featured here approach food, space and design in completely different ways. Le Club Chasse et Pêche is minimal and refined, with its classic logo gracing every surface; Chambar encapsulates the vitality of a young city in its play between raw and polished; at Les Cabotins, the food changes daily, always staying eccentric and spontaneous — just like its decor.

Everything from the cool, precise aesthetic of Le Club to the je ne sais quoi of the table lamps drilled to the ceiling at Les Cabotins to the cocktails made from herbal infusions at Chambar are at the vanguard in restaurant design. With an eye for detail, these on-the-edge chefs are creating things of beauty both on and off the plate. It is this holistic approach to food and ambiance that make these three true mavericks. 

 


 

Les Cabotins

Montreal, Quebec
Thierry Soubirou, head chef
Bertrand Lacour, chef/owner

No one I ask knows about Les Cabotins. The surprise is essential. The restaurant is rarely stumbled upon, lying as it does as far East as Montreal’s Olympic stadium. The food is spontaneous. Beyond a few French staples, the chef duo take off into the unknown, wiping the chalkboard halfway through the day, struck by inspiration. Thierry is French, rooted in the foundations. His knowledge and the flair of Bertrand’s theatrics equals constant surprise.

The two began with clandestine dinner parties in an old Cadbury chocolate factory. Between metalworkers and painters, they cooked in a laboratory of food and abstraction. When the landlord could no longer turn a blind eye, they went public and opened Les Cabotins. In the corner of the restaurant, there is a sofa built by Thierry. In front of it sits a coffee table covered in construction paper and scissors that cut out different shapes. The bathroom’s toilet brush lives in a fishing boot. The culinary performance mimics the restaurant’s name — French for bad actors who like to steal the show with their delightful folly. This is food and comedy in the true theatrical sense.

How long have you been at this location?
A year and a half.

Most important piece of equipment?
The knife and the dishwasher. We worked a long time without one. It was very long.

Your origins?
We started cooking in a loft in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood (the Cadbury building). It was a clandestine laboratory. Forty people and a table d’hôte.

What experiences cooking or otherwise made you want to be a cook?
Bertrand: I studied theatre. I decided to be an actor in a restaurant instead.
Thierry: I am a foundation cook. It is all I have wanted to do since birth.

Something that can’t be in the kitchen?
Powder. Prepared bouillon, any bases that come out of a packet. No GMOs. What is a GMO?

Favourite music for preparing food?
Very eclectic. In the sixties, Québécois singers took American pop and translated it. Completely ridiculous and fun! Also, ancient music; La Bolduc, La Poune.

Things you like to do outside the kitchen?
T: Building sofas and designing furniture.

What do you eat for breakfast?
B: A coffee and a cigarette. I also love fresh bread.
T: I am a sweets guy. Jam and toast.

What do you like to cook for yourself?
B: Pasta (laughing).

Least favourite food as a kid?
B: Ham, pineapple and maraschino cherries mixed together out of a can.
T: Escargots!

Any plans for the future?
Concentrate on the restaurant. Of course, we have dreams: a bar, a pâtisserie, maybe.

Why this location and the design?
In a way, it is very central. It is close to the bus, people come from the north and south of Montreal and there is always a place to park. This location used to be a sock factory. Since it is the only business that survived here, we decided to design the space with materials and objects related to the garment trade. (Note the boxer shorts on Thierry’s head).

Wine?
It changes regularly. Sellers approach us and we choose what we like. What best goes with the food we are doing at the moment.

On the menu?
The table d’hôte changes all the time. Dishes will have the same ingredients and be prepared differently. There are the classics: cassoulet, bourguignon, bavette, and after that, we just invent, experiment.

Do you find correlations between theatre and cooking?
B: Oh yeah!

Caille Royale Farcie, Sauce Chocolat et Vin Rouge
Serves 6

6 deboned quails
1/2 cup whole pistachios
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup of cognac
2 cups semisweet dark chocolate
1/2 cup sugar
400 g ground poultry (chicken or other)
fresh basil and parsley
1 Spanish onion
1/2 litre red wine (and a glass for the cook)
300 g button mushrooms
oil, butter, salt, pepper, bay leaves and thyme

Chop the pistachios, onion, garlic, basil and parsley. Incorporate the chopped ingredients with the ground poultry.

Have a sip of the cognac and add the rest to the mix. Salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Stuff the quails with the mix.

Put the quails into a hot saucepan and cook until golden brown. Take a sip of wine while you wait. Remove quails and set aside.

Sauté the mushrooms. Take a bite of the chocolate and another swig of wine, let it melt in your mouth. Toss the rest of the chocolate in the saucepan with the remaining wine.

Incorporate the sugar and return the quail to the saucepan with the bay leaves and thyme.

Let the broth reduce for 45 minutes. While waiting, open another bottle of wine.
Finally, add salt and pepper and a spoon of butter. Serve with sautéed vegetables.

 


Le Club Chasse et Pêche

Montreal, Quebec
Claude Pelletier, founder/designer/head chef

Only a dimly lit painted emblem hangs outside. Even the dark hallway leading into the restaurant is shrouded in mystery. Once you’ve sat down the design speaks in whispers. The wallpaper repeats the emblem, a spotlight illuminates a pair of antlers in a fountain. The space is quiet; the sound of voices, music and the kitchen are dampened by the padded walls and heavy chairs. With every exit of a server, some of the intense energy of the kitchen leaks out past the swinging door. Once inside, it is clear to the observer that a refined machine is at work in beautiful, focused unison to create culinary magic. Through the long rectangular kitchen, I search for head chef Claude Pelletier. Without lifting their eyes from the food, the cooks motion to the cavernous basement, where deep beneath the scientist’s own creation, he stands, in all simplicity, cleaning fish. This simple gesture speaks eloquently to the earthy roots of a restaurant where magnificent design and perfect food arise from a pure desire for taste and quality over anything else.

What’s your training?
I attended cooking school in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. Began working in hotels in Montreal, then restaurants such as Cube in the St Paul hotel in Old Montreal.

What’s your favourite ingredient of late?
We try and stay focused on freshness and what’s available locally. I like to use fish. I import Kobe beef and use meats that are harder to find. My fish comes from La Mère on Papineau — they go to New York twice a week.

Most important piece of equipment in the kitchen?
The Thermo Mix. It cooks while it blends. It’s great for sauces and pastry.

Did you always want to be a cook?
No, not really. A good friend of mine was going to cooking school so I went along as well. Besides, the kitchen always seemed to be filled with party people. I have now been at it for twenty-five years.

Anything that can’t be in the kitchen?
There are lots of things. Philippe, the sommelier, always comes in all sweaty after a long run.

What do you do outside the kitchen?
I take care of my family. I have two daughters. I also love woodworking. I did 50 percent of the interior work in here. I put the ceiling up. I always have small projects on the go.

What do you like for breakfast?
I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t wake up early because I am at the restaurant until late.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?
I would like to sell real estate.

What do you cook for yourself?
I cook lunch for my kids. I love the barbecue, cooking for my wife. On my days off, I love being outside, cooking fish. I try to teach my kids to eat good things.

Least favourite food as a kid?
Fish and lobster. Maybe this led me to becoming a cook. When I was eleven, my mother told me to cook for myself if I didn’t like what she was preparing.

What do you enjoy most about Le Club?
I’ve simplified my cooking a lot. I focus on taste rather than a heavy plate and garnish. Less manipulation. Simplified food, fewer cooks, fewer staff. Here we have one team. We are closed Sunday and Monday. So it’s like, Wow! I can have a real life!

Boileau Venison Two Ways: Roasted Loin and Braised Short Rib
Serves 4

Loin:
600 g venison loin
4 large Jerusalem artichokes, peeled
butter to roast artichokes
8 baby leeks, blanched
extra virgin olive oil

Short rib:
1 rack (4 bones) of venison short ribs
1 litre of game stock (or veal)
1 mirepoix
1 inch x 1 inch x 4 inches of smoked bacon (not sliced)
250 ml of red wine
fresh thyme
fresh parsley
fresh chives
bay leaves
whole black peppercorn  
 
Sear the ribs at high heat until the meat is well caramelized; drain the excess fat. Deglaze with red wine; add stock, mirepoix, bacon, peppercorn and all the herbs. Bring to a boil, cover with foil paper and cook for 12 hours at 250˚F. Cool down and very delicately remove the ribs from the cooking liquid. Set aside.

At medium high heat in a frying pan, brown the Jerusalem artichokes in butter until they are entirely golden. Finish cooking in the oven at 400˚F for a few minutes. Set aside.  

Pan sear venison loin at high heat until medium-rare. Set aside and let the meat rest for 10 minutes.  

On one side of the plate, place the Jerusalem artichokes and add the rib on top. On the other side, add two room-temperature baby leeks mixed in olive oil and season with fleur de sel. Slice the venison loin in two and place on top. Finish with a drop of rib cooking juices or a gastrique sauce (ideally gooseberries, but any other wild berries will do).

 


Chambar

Vancouver, British Columbia
Nico Schuermans, chef

By seventeen, Nico was cooking at the Savoy Hotel in London. After travelling the world and picking up techniques, he came to Whistler on vacation. With his wife Karri, a native of Vancouver with a keen sense of design, he opened Chambar, a Belgian restaurant with African and Asian roots, in a unique downtown Vancouver location. The space provides sweeping views of rising glass towers of Yaletown through the large back windows and sunken seats in storefront windows on Beatty Street. There are three distinct spaces: a large back room and a bar connected by a tight hallway past the kitchen. The narrow space lends an intensity and charm to a West Coast city whose cultural connectivity is marred by sprawl. To watch the servers and line cooks prepare for a bustling evening is to observe a proud synchronization of movements by people dedicated to Nico and Karri’s idea of what a fantastic restaurant should be. Go to Chambar on any night and taste the future of food in Vancouver.

Where were you born?
In Rwanda in 1976.

What were your reasons for opening a restaurant in Vancouver?
We came here on holiday — we used to live in Australia. We like Whistler so much because of the skiing and snowboarding. There were not many good, funky restaurants in Vancouver, so we just moved in.

Was it difficult to find the location?
Nico: We found the space and that was it. We didn’t look anywhere else. It’s special because you have the street in the front and the views in the back. It’s a commentary on the split personality of Vancouver, an urban sophistication with the wilderness at one’s doorstep.
Karri: Some people don’t even see that the back exists. People go out for different reasons. There’s three different atmospheres within one space.

Were you a foundation chef?
I have been working in kitchens since I was fourteen years old. I trained in Belgium, then London, then Australia. I did all the different levels of cooking. I was a head chef in Sydney. Karri takes care of the marketing and design. She raised the money and designed the restaurant.

Favourite ingredient of late?
Ostrich, it is so lean. We do a carpaccio right now. In Vancouver there is also a heavy Asian influence. I use the vegetables but not the flavours.

Where do you shop?
The Nigerian supermarket and the Asian superstore. I pick some ingredients and bring them together in my own cooking, which is French and North African. I ran a Moroccan restaurant in Australia. My biggest influences are French and Moroccan cooking.

Most important piece of equipment in the kitchen?
The bell. My grandma collects bells. When she found out I opened a restaurant she sent me an old hotel bell. And heat. The power of your whole kitchen is the heat.

Is there anything that made you decide to become a chef?
I hated traditional schooling. I got a summer job as a bar back — I didn’t like that so I moved to the kitchen. As soon as I stepped in, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I went from an average restaurant to super high dining, then I went to Australia and decided to do my own thing. I found out how to work the markets and got a handle on produce. The thing with fine dining is that people are using the best produce and ingredients and cooking it well without being original. We wanted to switch it up a little bit, so that’s what we are doing here.

Is there anything that can’t be in the kitchen?
Chicken!

What do you like to do outside the kitchen?
I ride a dirt bike at least three times a week. I would give all this up for it. But it’s not an option. I was there this morning. If you live here, you gotta buy the toys. Once you have the toys, you can have an amazing lifestyle. In Europe, they just work.

What do you eat for breakfast?
I am not a breakfast guy. I love the bacon-and-eggs thing. Coffee. I live on Commercial Drive — I go to three different places.

What do you cook for yourself?
I cook for my friends. I rarely cook just for myself. I love my food here in the restaurant. In Vancouver, I go out all the time.

What was your least favourite food as a kid?
Peas. We had a rule in my house where you could choose one ingredient not to eat. For me, it was peas.

Do you have any plans for other projects?
I would never do Chambar somewhere else. This is what it is; I would never repeat it. I don’t believe in repetition in one product, especially in restaurants. I would like to do a good European café where you can drink alcohol and good coffee. You have to choose between this and lifestyle. We stepped away from the business when Max was born. But now we realize we feel we have to be here even if we aren’t working. It’s like leaving a kid alone. They may be fine but they are not going to grow up with your attributes. You need to know what’s going on.

What do you enjoy most about having the space here?
When it is totally packed and everybody is having a good time and you know that you created that. When I am looking around and I see a DJ before he goes to the club and a suit in the back. That’s great about this business. You bring people together to have a good time and you create it. The best part is that you are looking at a big party you put on every night and that is pretty cool.

Saumon Sauvage à l’Absinthe
Serves 1

6 oz Sockeye salmon, centre cut
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 oz absinthe
1 oz carrots, small parisienne scoop*
1 oz yellow zucchini, small parisienne scoop
1 oz green zucchini, small parisienne scoop
3 large pre-made ravioli, preferably seafood
100 ml butter
1 tbsp chives, chopped
1 lemon, freshly squeezed
1 orange, freshly squeezed
150 ml balsamic vinegar
1 sprig watercress
salt and pepper to taste
* a garnish tool used to shape vegetables into small shapely spheres

Sauté the garlic and vegetables in a small saucepot until slightly tender, add the absinthe and lemon juice and bring to a quick simmer. Whisk the butter into the saucepot and remove from the heat. Put aside.

Marinate the salmon for 10 minutes in the balsamic vinegar and orange juice. Then remove and season the salmon on both sides. Sear the salmon in a lightly oiled non-stick pan.

Place the salmon in a 375˚F oven for 4 minutes. Remove and allow it to rest for 2 minutes. (Salmon is best when served medium-rare.)

Heat the ravioli in the saucepot and then bring the absinthe sauce back to a simmer. Finish the sauce with chopped chives. Place three ravioli in a large soup plate and drizzle the sauce around them.

Lay the salmon over the ravioli. Finish the dish by topping the salmon with the watercress.

 


   

Judy Wu & Wilson Wu

Wild Tangerine Cucina Domestica
Edmonton, Alberta

After ten years of running Polo’s in Edmonton’s university district, this brother-and-sister team have stepped out with something Wilson describes as “first steps toward a new Canadian cuisine.” Leaps away from what Canada has long considered Chinese food, Judy and Wilson are appropriating flavours from all continents. Take, for instance, their gnocchi with coconut cream or the shrimp lollipops caked in shredded phyllo pastry and dipped in a kick of wasabi yoghurt. Check out Judy’s approach to “traditional” Chinese: she’s replaced lemon chicken, often deep-fried and lathered in a died-yellow sauce, with a breast stuffed with ricotta cheese, finely minced red dates — for sweetness — and roasted spinach — for flavour and colour — topped with a dash of lemon juice and zest, and finished with a speckle of basil seeds. Forget takeout!

The space is small, the decor minimal and the menu is designed for sharing. The restaurant uses local ingredients (Sturgeon Valley pork, organic Paddle River elk and Ardrossan-raised bison for short ribs) almost exclusively. The wine list features well-selected VQAs (like Cedar Creek Pinot Gris) predominantly as well as two dozen types of beer from across the globe. If you are looking for something fun and unusual in Edmonton, Wild Tangerine is definitely the spot.

Michael Howell

Tempest
Wolfville, Nova Scotia

With twenty years of working in big cities across North America under his apron, Michael Howell was ready to go small town. He landed in Wolfville because it met all the parameters of his search: a university town; a commercial space just large enough to house an intimate fifty-seat restaurant with a two-bedroom apartment upstairs. Early on Michael put the word out that he would buy ingredients brought to the back door of the restaurant if they were of excellent quality. “Local fishermen hawking striped bass caught earlier that day, or someone who had found a late season patch of blackberries.” His intention is to create food that reflects the world while using local ingredients — his ajvar-crusted halibut with makdous-infused Israeli couscous and preserved lemon does just that. He has a list of clients to call when he makes certain dishes: they flock to Tempest within the hour.

While mesclun greens don’t grow in the Annapolis Valley in February, Michael does his best to run a completely seasonal restaurant. Local farmers appreciate his commitment to indigenous ingredients and always go to him with the best they have, regardless of the month. The restaurant’s atmosphere could be described as urban-chic-meets-small-town-Nova-Scotia. The pastry chef, Frederic Jami, has worked in several Michelin-star restaurants and he is creating the best desserts in the province. This restaurant is definitely a frontrunner to Atlantic Canada’s current culinary boom. Michael understands his role as both an educator and a catalyst for change. On Thursday nights — Martini Night — Michael loves to observe the student and adult patrons who just can’t believe such a hip place exists in Wolfville.

Pierre LePage

Le Frolic Bistro Bar & L’Héritage Restaurant
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

No town is complete without a classic French bistro. Did I write that? Luckily, if you live in Yellowknife, this rule still stands and you get to go to Le Frolic, eat French and listen to live jazz. You could also approach Pierre LePage for one of his recipes, which he shares easily and with passion.

Originally from Québec, Pierre is a journeyman who cooked and travelled his way around the world and finally landed north of sixty. At sixteen, he began his formal training in Strasbourg, France. In 1983, he travelled with the Culinary Team of Canada, then fixed plates at Alberta’s Grande Prairie Inn. Looking for new challenges, he moved on to dish out more than 2,500 meals a day at the Whistler Conference Centre. But the North beckoned.

Realizing a lifelong dream, he opened his own bistro/jazz bar as well as a classic French restaurant. Try the Musk ox tenderloin with an Alaskan birch syrup, Northern Saskatoon berry and bourbon reduction — or any of the perfect French standards. Life is good for the northern foodie when an acclaimed chef opens his doors and the scent and sounds mix with the aurora borealis.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Looking at the small things that make life great and the people who create them.

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